Tomatoes fresh off the vine, six kinds of plums, huge bunches of fresh basil and rosemary, piles of locally grown eggplant and squash - such bounty.
Even when I eat my fill of peaches in August, I am still grateful to open a jar of home-made peach preserves in December, when it seems that eating fresh and local has been limited to pumpkin, parsnips, and potatoes.
More and more home cooks are transforming produce at its peak into sauces, preserves, and pickled marinated condiments to enjoy as our local fresh harvest dwindles. Workshops on home canning and pickling at diverse venues around the city this summer, such as Historic Wyck House in Germantown and Greensgrow Farms in Kensington, have been fully subscribed.
People of all ages are discovering that making your own jams or pickles in small batches gives you ultimate control over the quality and the cost. You can make jam with less sugar, pickles with less salt, roasted peppers from your garden or local farm, with no additives besides your favorite herbs and garlic.
Once the province of the farm family, canning and preserving are now promoted and practiced by top chefs, garden and cooking bloggers, and home cooks who share an interest in eating locally produced foods that taste great.
Ball, one of the leading manufacturers of home canning supplies, reports that its sales are up more than 30 percent since 2007. And, according to a recent poll of subscribers to allrecipes.com, almost half of today's home canners are 40 and under.
"Putting up" conjures images of piles of fruit, steaming kettles, and lots of jars - which is indeed one very satisfying and really quite easy way to preserve the harvest bounty. (See accompanying story.)
But there are also other easy ways to preserve small (or large) batches of many of the delights piling up on roadside and urban farm stands, backyard gardens, and orchards. Besides canning, the classic methods include pickling (a subset of canning), oven drying or dehydrating, and freezing.
Wondering how to get started? Be alert for a good deal on fresh fruit and vegetables. Local peaches piled high in wood boxes at my local food co-op got me going this year. Last week I made several batches of peach jam, brandied peaches, peach-infused vodka to serve at my December holiday party, and herbed peaches in light syrup.
Despite the tomato blight, I had so many cherry and plum tomatoes in our backyard plot that I oven-dried and packed 10 pints (almost 20 pounds of raw tomatoes) with basil and garlic olive oil to eat all fall.
A few tender yellow summer squash inspired a surprisingly delicious marinated pickled squash with mint and olive oil.
Then there were the beautiful local raspberries and red plums at the farmers market this week. Once home, as I saw the red fruit piled on the counter, I remembered some local organic cranberries I had tucked in the freezer last winter. The three red fruits combined with some sugar made an extraordinarily easy, gorgeous jewel-toned preserve that tasted tart, sweet, and delicious.
Jam, or fruit preserves, is basically chopped-up fruit cooked with sugar until thick. It's that simple. There are tricks and tips for specific fruits, but it's hard to go wrong if you start with blemish-free ripe fruit. Sometimes a squeeze of lemon juice aids with acidity.
With juicy fruit, such as peaches, I like to cut up the fruit (peeling first if the skin is thick), and toss the chopped peaches with some sugar in a colander set over a bowl to collect the juices. I cook this juice until syrupy before adding the chopped fruit. This allows a shorter cooking time to reach thickness, and more fresh flavor is retained. In my red-fruit jam I slow-cook a thick plum-cranberry-sugar mixture, then add the raspberries at the end.
Every batch of fruit varies in ripeness, sweetness, and water content, so it is important to taste each batch. It's fine to add a bit more sugar or a few teaspoons of lemon at the very end of cooking jam or preserves. Jellies are trickier in their proportions, and less forgiving, so I stick with jams, preserves, and conserves.
If you want to avoid the whole boiling and sealing process of canning, simply store your finished product in the refrigerator and eat it within about a month or freeze for four to six months.
Many of my friends freeze lightly blanched veggies to use through the winter. I freeze various herb pestos and herb/olive oil purees in ice cube trays. Once they're frozen, I pop these flavor-filled cubes into well-labeled storage containers for easy one-portion use through winter. I've been doing this so long my family thinks of pesto as a winter staple.
I also make several batches of summer vegetable soups for the freezer, but find most frozen vegetables unappealing. The exceptions are tomatoes and peppers. Frozen whole or halved, peeled or not, frozen tomatoes can be used for many winter meals. Peppers should be seeded and destemmed, and can be frozen raw or after being charred on the grill, peeled or not. Both of these vegetables enliven soups, stews, and sauces with a burst of summer right from the freezer.
Oven-drying magically transforms tomatoes and sweet juicy fruits into an even sweeter, more flavorful and storable form. Even if you are going to eat them today, oven-drying is worth a try.
Cut stone fruit (peaches, apricots, plums), figs, or cherry or plum tomatoes in half, and lay them cut side up on a cookie sheet lined with parchment (or a silicone pan liner). Sprinkle lightly with sugar (for fruits) - Maldon or other sea salt for tomatoes - and place in an oven set on its lowest setting. (My oven goes as low as 170 degrees, up to about 200 degrees works fine.) After six to 12 hours when the fruit is dried but still soft, remove and cool. Store for up to two weeks in the fridge, three to four months in the freezer, stacked in a well-sealed container between layers of parchment or waxed paper.
The drying concentrates the flavor, and the texture holds up to storing very well. Oven-dried tomatoes are excellent packed into clean glass jars with sliced garlic and a few fresh basil leaves topped with olive oil, and stored in the refrigerator for up to a month. Let them marinate for at least a few days before eating. Try oven-dried peaches or plums in a tart for a delicious alternative to pie.
I didn't grow the right cucumbers for pickling this year, so I have a new method for preserving the few extra vegetables I have. This technique of pickling and marinating makes a delightful appetizer straight from the jar with a sliced baguette.
Bite-sized pieces of vegetables are blanched in a salty pickling liquid, tossed hot in seasoned olive oil, then packed into hot jars. There are many amazing combinations depending on what you like and what's available at the market: summer squash with mint; carrots and fennel with thyme; local mixed mushrooms with rosemary; eggplant cubes with oregano.
I make various combinations in small wide-mouth jars with a screw cap. After two weeks in the fridge these are ready to eat - and will last until your family and friends discover where you've stored them.
Finally, don't forget to label and date your creations. This winter, when warm, sunny days are a distant memory, you'll be glad to know what's what, and you'll be very glad you stashed away some summer in a jar.
The basic supplies for canning - jars, lids, screw bands, large canning pot with a rack, and tongs - are easily obtained at a hardware store, and are often available even cheaper at yard sales. The glass jars and metal bands can be reused year after year; lids can be used only once.
Of concern to anyone who preserves at home is the possibility of spoilage. If you follow basic common sense and cleanliness, and review and follow the easily available guidelines of the USDA or from the manufacturers of canning products, you will be fine.
Processing in a hot-water bath destroys microorganisms that would cause preserves to spoil. This involves filling hot sterilized jars with hot preserves, sealing with a rubberized lid, and securing with a screw band. The sealed jars are placed in a rack in a deep canning kettle with enough water to cover the tops by one inch, and "processed" for a set time until heated sufficiently.
Any large stockpot will suffice for canning, and if you don't have a rack for the bottom you can substitute extra screw bands in the bottom of the pot to keep the glass jars from resting directly against the heat.
To get started, I clear off and wipe my cluttered kitchen counters. I lay down a few clean dish towels on the counter where the jars will land once processed. I gather my clean jars, bands, and new lids.
I often use my dishwasher to clean and heat the jars before filling. If I time it right, the jars can be hot out of the dishwasher; if not, I place the freshly washed jars face up in a 250-degree oven while the jam is cooking, so they will be hot. Another option is to put the jars, lids, and bands in their hot-water bath pot to heat and sterilize.
After filling the jars, carefully wipe away drips and clean the rim with a damp towel, place a new lid on top, and secure with a screw band. The covered jars are submerged in the hot-water bath and "processed" for enough time to ensure that the center of the product reaches 212 degrees. This is where following the recipe's timing is important. During the heat processing, the contents of the jar expand, forcing out some of the air. The air that remains inside the jar contracts as it cools, creating a partial vacuum, pulling the lid tight against the jar. You will hear a popping noise as each jar seals upon cooling. To test for a good seal, simply press the center of the cooled lid. If it stays depressed the jar is sealed. If not, refrigerate, and eat the contents within a few weeks. You can also reprocess this jar with a new lid in the hot-water bath.
- Anna Herman
Makes about 6 pints
10 ears white or sweet yellow corn (6 cups kernels)
1 cup shredded, minced green cabbage (about 1/2 medium head)
4 medium red onions, minced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
4 sweet peppers - a combination of colors is nice - seeded and minced
1 chili pepper, such as jalapeno, seeded and minced
2/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
3/4 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/8 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1. Cut the corn from the cobs and scrape additional liquid from the cobs over a large nonreactive pan. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook until mixture comes to a boil. Simmer five minutes.
2. Spoon into hot sterilized jars. Wipe the rims clean with a damp towel. Seal with new lids and metal rings and process in a hot-water bath for 25 minutes. Remove, cool, check the seals, label, and store. Wait two weeks before eating.
Notes: Eaten fresh or home-canned, this spicy and sweet relish goes nicely with grilled fish and meats, or as a condiment with any sort of tacos. If you are not processing, cook the relish for 30 minutes and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 18 calories, trace protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 98 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 4 to 6 pint jars
3 to 4 pounds red-skinned plums
12 to 16 ounces cranberries (frozen are fine)
2 to 4 cups sugar
1 pint raspberries
Zest of one orange
1. Pit the plums and cut into chunks.
2. Add the plums, cranberries, and 2 cups sugar to a wide-bottomed nonreactive pot and bring to a boil. Simmer gently until the mixture thickens and the skins on the cranberries burst. Add the raspberries and orange zest and stir while the mixture comes back to a low boil. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if needed. Cook until thickened to jamlike consistency. Cranberries are high in pectin, a natural thickener, and this mixture will thicken slightly when cooling.
3. Spoon into hot jars, wipe the rim clean with a damp towel. Cover with a new lid and metal ring, and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Remove, cool, check the seal, label, and store.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 29 calories, trace protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, trace sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 5 to 6 cups
7 pounds peaches, peeled and sliced (about 8 cups)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1. Toss the peaches with the sugar and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in a large bowl for 1 to 2 hours, stirring twice.
2. Place a colander over a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan, and drain the peach liquid. Keep the fruit aside and bring the liquid to a boil and cook until it is syrupy - it will be about 220 degrees. Add the reserved fruit and any remaining juice and cook over high heat until the peaches look glazed and golden in hue.
3. Ladle hot preserves into hot sterilized jars, wipe the rims clean with a damp towel, and seal with new lids and metal rings. Process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Remove, cool, check seals, label, and store.
Note: Cooking the juices first and adding the fruit for minimal cooking make for a fresh-tasting, flavorful product. Use a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed pan for the best results.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 49 calories, trace protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, trace sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes about 4 pints
For the pickling liquid:
1 quart cider or white wine vinegar
1 quart water
2 tablespoons sea salt
For the pickling marinade:
2 cups flavorful olive oil
4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
1 small red onion, halved and sliced thin
1 to 2 fresh chili peppers, red or green
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds (optional)
Choose from the following combinations:
2 pounds small summer squash, cubed, several sprigs fresh mint, or
2 pounds peppers, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, several sprigs thyme, or
2 pounds mixed mushrooms, sprigs sage, rosemary and thyme, or
1 pound baby carrots, 1 pound bulb fennel and fennel fronds, or
2 pounds cucumbers, sprigs of fresh dill
1. Bring the pickling ingredients to a boil in a large nonreactive pot.
2. Meanwhile toss the marinade ingredients together in a large nonreactive bowl.
3. Add the vegetables to the boiling pickling liquid and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the hot vegetables directly to the marinade and toss until well coated. Add the herb sprigs now, or tuck them into each jar.
4. Spoon warm vegetables evenly into hot sterilized jars, and cover them completely with the marinade. If more liquid is need to cover, you can spoon up to 1 teaspoon of the pickling liquid in too, or add a bit more olive oil. Wipe the rims and put lids on tightly. These vegetables are not processed further and should be stored in the refrigerator. Let sit for two weeks if you can wait, and eat within 3 months.
Note: If you cut the vegetables into bite-size cubes they absorb more marinade and are easier to eat.